How to Organize a Peace Protest in Little Havana

First, get unified; next, give out food

The incredible power of the Cuban-exile community to mobilize supporters for "their own issues" was on full display a month ago, when, in just three weeks, it organized a massive march against Hugo Chavez -- the democratically elected president of Venezuela, who has been fighting a three-month-old general strike aimed at toppling his increasingly strict regime. (Chavez's next move may put restrictions on the very pro-opposition press; he has arrested one opposition leader and has issued arrest warrants for others.) Anti-Chavez forces say the Venezuelan president is Castro's messenger and heir apparent. This -- along with Chavez's social agenda that has drawn widespread support from the poor in Venezuela and disdain from the wealthy in exile -- is provoking the massive display of disaffection both here and in Venezuela.

But both the Cubans and Venezuelans here know there was more to the so-called "Mega March" against Chavez than the traditional anti-Castro-equals-big-turnout formula. To pull together the pieces for the anti-Chavez protest, the Cuban-exile machine mobilized dozens of organizers who hit newsstands, restaurants, old-folks homes, and one-story villas in Little Havana. They passed out pamphlets, put up posters, and most important, put ads in community newspapers and on the Spanish-language radio and television stations. They had their Venezuelan counterparts do the same. The result was something resembling an antiwar protest during the Vietnam era rolling down Calle Ocho.

Rafael Velasquez (right) cozies up to the newest antiwar protesters, the Cubans, with the help of Rafael Dominguez (center)
Steve Satterwhite
Rafael Velasquez (right) cozies up to the newest antiwar protesters, the Cubans, with the help of Rafael Dominguez (center)

There are dozens of people in the antiwar movement working day and night, putting up Websites, sending e-mails, and making phone calls. But Velasquez complains that it's difficult to pull together the pieces for much of anything, much less a massive demonstration. "I want to have a press release, but I can't even get approval from the steering committee," he says. The steering committee -- twenty people from a dozen different antiwar, environmental, socialist, and religious organizations who get together on Sundays at the Coral Gables Congregational Church --eventually told him to put it out in the name of his group, People United for Truth in Iraq, which he did. Don't get that confused with Concerned People in Opposition to War in Iraq, the former name of Velasquez's South Beach-based group, or Miami for Peace, or Miami Coalition Against the War, or any of the other long-winded ways of simply saying antiwar.

Not that the names of the Cuban or Venezuelan groups aren't confusing. There are over 200 Cuban-exile groups and a few dozen Venezuelan groups. But the Venezuelans, for instance, recently formed one umbrella organization, Todos por Venezuela, and worked with one single liaison to organize the "Mega March" last month. They gave people specific organizing jobs in their traditional spheres of influence and then lit up the phone banks. "They all wanted to help us," Sarita Bittan, the head of Todos por Venezuela, told me. "The whole Cuban-exile community was there."

In contrast, the Miami antiwar movement has people sending out e-mails and faxes to anyone and everyone simultaneously. But there's little central organization. Each group, for example, has a different march on a different day, or even on the same day. On the Wednesday that I accompanied him in Little Havana, Velasquez was organizing for a Saturday march in South Beach. Peace South Florida had also scheduled one for Saturday. On that Friday, there were two more events. If you're a peace activist, where do you go? Who do you call? How many days can you spare?

In the end, Velasquez starts to get it. He finishes his tour in Little Havana at Rafael Dominguez's house; Rafael is a jovial, potbellied Cuban exile who's been a local organizer for years. "I got twenty people ready for you tomorrow," he tells the excited Velasquez, who is being distracted by his host's blaring TV and the half-dressed women on a Channel 41 game show. The twenty will be part of the fifty or so who will arrive for the food that Dominguez's group, Vecinos en Accion, or Neighbors in Action, will be handing out. In exchange for the food, these people will pass out antiwar pamphlets, Dominguez explains. "If you did a march in Little Havana," Dominguez reveals, "there'd be the same number of people as when they did the [anti-]Chavez march!"

Velasquez's eyes widen, then he looks down at the floor, then back at the TV, and up to Dominguez again.

"Yeah?" his eyes seem to ask.

Maybe these Cubans know what they're doing ...

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